by Ramanan Sivaranjan on December 05, 2014
I started writing what follows weeks and weeks ago. I have been waiting—impatiently—for A Red and Pleasant Land, the new D&D supplement by Zak Smith. It’s here now, which makes dragging my feet to post this seem particularly dumb.
Several weeks ago I attended OSRCon 2014. I saw some familiar faces and met some new people. The event was low key and a lot of fun. There are lots of old school gamers in Toronto, but we rarely meet up.
I started the day with a game of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Kiel, of Dungeons and Donuts fame, ran an adventure using Zak Smith’s new module, A Red and Pleasant Land. This is Zak’s D&D take on Alice and Wonderland. The adventure is due out very soon. There is no other RPG book I am more excited about.
The game began as many do: a rich and mysterious benefactor promised the party riches beyond their wildest dreams if they would perform a series of tasks:
- Clear out the knothole dungeon (an abandoned hangman’s post).
- Map as much of Castle Cachtice as possible.
- Ruin the hatter’s trial (“not guilty”).
The characters could make sense of the first task, as they were aware of the the location of the dungeon. The others were confusing: there is no Castle Cachtice and they had no idea who the hatter was. Still, what player is going to say no to tremendous wealth—especially when you are playing a one-shot?
Since this was OSRCon we began the adventure by carefully searching the area surrounding the entrance to the knothole dungeon. A dice roll later and the specialist had discovered a tiny key. Satisfied we were safe enough, we ventured down into the dungeon. We moved cautiously, coming upon a room with 3 dead bodies: two man sized, and one halfling sized. A few more dice rolls and we had discovered a few more curiosities.
As players we quickly realized that this module featured a pretty great “I Search the Body…” table. As the game progressed we could see that a lot of the work Kiel was doing as a GM in this game involved working with random tables and interpreting their results for us. Since he didn’t have an actual book, but a giant ream of paper, this would sometimes slow things down as we waited for him to find his place or look up a result.
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun if the players understand what’s going on, and the delay adds something to the game. Rolling for random treasure is enjoyable because there is some anticipation about what you might find. We were making the rolls as players, so the flow of the game rested with us. By the time we finished futzing around with our dice Kiel would be ready to read off the results of our roll. On the other hand, when Kiel was rolling on random tables himself he doesn’t have this wiggle room and any delay stands out. I suspect he would have been fine had he added a few more post-it note bookmarks to his binder of paper. There seemed to be a few tables he was using regularly in the adventure. (An actual book is also much easier to flip through.) Depending on what tables were being consulted, rolling results before the game or simply reading the tables as lists might work as well to speed things up. I don’t think anyone found the delays particularly distracting. Most of the game moved smoothly so anything that didn’t is noticeable.
Re-reading the above, I was curious just how much or how little preparation work Kiel did for this session. So, I asked him: “I actually ran that adventure with almost no prep. The first knothole dungeon before the castle was randomly generated on the spot.” Impressive! I thought Kiel was using a table here or there, that I was catching every instance of him looking stuff up. Apparently I was just catching those moments where he wasn’t looking things up fast enough. Amazing. I’d have never guessed that first dungeon was something he hadn’t written up ahead of time. Of course, this books isn’t going to automatically make you better at improvisation and ad-libbing, but it certainly seems to be a good game aid to support that style of DMing.
We explored the dungeon, ended up “through the looking glass”, briefly met the Red Queen, and did manage to sabotage a trial—mostly, anyway. A lot of crazy stuff happened in between, but I really don’t want to spoil this setting for anyone else. There are a few elements of A Red and Pleasant Land that are so much fun when you first encounter them I would feel bad if I ruined that experience for anyone else who plans to play in this setting. I participated in the play tests that were happening when this book was in development, and it was a great experience because I knew almost nothing about what Zak was working on beyond the fact it was set in an Alice in Wonderland world. There is another big literary influence on this work, but I feel like not knowing what it is makes that reveal in the game all the more fun.
Kiel ran a great session. It felt very much like something he would run crossed with something Zak would run—which makes sense I suppose. Zak has a very distinct style to his conception of D&D, and it really shines through in this setting. It’s a testament to the work he has done here that the adventure Kiel ran and the adventure Zak ran during the playtest both had a similar vibe to them. Zak’s game didn’t feel anymore genuine or official than Kiel’s.
All in all I have played 4 different sessions set in this world. As a player I have nothing but good things to say A Red and Pleasant Land.
I can read Zak’s book right now. I’ve already started doing that. The thing has a lot of hype to live up to. Perhaps unrealistic levels of hype. I don’t want to write about any of it till I can flip through the paper pages of this wonderful book.